December 9, 2013


Smonh is a slightly built, soft-spoken man in his mid-20s. When Human Rights Watch talked with him one evening in mid-2013, he was sitting quietly in a public park in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. He explained that he earns a living by collecting rubbish from the streets and selling it to traders for recycling.

His life had recently changed considerably for the worse. Park guards picked him up in early November 2012, about two weeks before US President Barrack Obama arrived in Phnom Penh for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit that began on November 19. Smonh wasn’t told why he was detained. He was put in a large truck that evening, along with a dozen other people—sex workers, beggars, and street kids.

They were driven to a government facility on the outskirts of the city, Orgkas Khnom (“My Chance”), which is not a jail or prison but supposedly a place for people dependent on drugs to receive treatment and rehabilitation. Like many others in the truck, Smonh did not need drug treatment. He used to smoke the drug “ya ma”—methamphetamine—during his adolescence but he was proud that he had stopped using it four years ago of his “own free will.”

He told Human Rights Watch that staff at the center beat and abused him as well as the other detainees. After a few weeks, he and several other detainees resolved to escape: “I could not stand the whippings,” he explained. They managed to break out of their sleeping quarters during the night, and some managed to escape over the external wall. But when Smonh could not clear the barbed wire on top of the external wall, a guard knocked him to the ground with a shock from an electric baton. Detainee guards then savagely beat him until he lost consciousness. The next day his punishment continued.

They beat me like they were whipping a horse. A single whip takes off your skin. A guard said “I’m whipping you so you’ll learn the rules of the center!” … I just pleaded with them to stop beating me. I felt I wasn’t human any more.

Smonh was detained for around three months. Although he had stopped using drugs long before his detention in Orgkas Khnom, he resumed drug use shortly after release:

I feel crazy because of the beatings I received inside the center. Now I sniff a can of glue a day and, if I can afford it, I smoke ya ma. I am very angry because they treat us like animals.

There are currently eight drug detention centers spread throughout Cambodia that, at any point in time, collectively hold around 1,000 men, women, and children. Most are confined for three to six months— although some detentions last up to 18 months. According to government statistics, some 2,200 people were confined in these centers during 2012. The majority of detainees are young men between 18 and 25 years old, although at least 10% of the total population is children.

Torture and other ill-treatment in these centers are common, both as punishment and as a regular part of the “program.” Staff designate certain detainees as unofficial guards, who often beat each new arrival. Cruel assaults by staff appear routine: Buon, in his early 20s, fell out of step during a military-like march and was made to crawl along the ground as guards repeatedly hit him with a rubber water hose; Sokrom, a woman in her mid-40s, was beaten by guard with a stick for asking to go to the toilet—she said her face was swollen for weeks afterwards; Asoch, in his early 30s, watched the director of one center thrash a fellow detainee with a branch from a coconut palm tree until it broke.

Human Rights Watch has conducted research on Cambodia’s drug detention centers since 2009. The Cambodian government has shown callous disregard for the well-being of the thousands of mostly marginalized people—many of them children—who it sends to the facilities, where individuals are subject to vicious and capricious abuse. Simple mistakes like falling out of step while performing military-like drills or singing the wrong words in a marching song can subject the person to brutal punishment.

There should be no illusions: these centers are not intended to help those dependent on drugs.

On the contrary, Human Rights Watch has found the centers are a means to lock away drug users and those suspected of drug use with considerably less effort and costs than would be incurred by prosecuting people in the justice system and incarcerating them in prisons. Although current Cambodian drug laws have a few broad procedural safeguards to protect people from being forced into drug detention centers, they are flimsy and ignored.

Lack of due process protections means the centers are also convenient facilities to detain people whom the Cambodian authorities consider “undesirable”—such as homeless people, beggars, street children, sex workers, and people with actual or perceived mental or developmental disabilities—in sporadic crackdowns, often ahead of high-profile international meetings or visits by foreign dignitaries.

But the centers are not only convenient places for the authorities to corral those deemed objectionable; they also appear intended to punish people for the supposed moral failure of drug use—or of being homeless, a beggar, or a sex worker.

Four years ago, Human Rights Watch published “Skin on the Cable”: The Illegal Arrest, Arbitrary Detention and Torture of People Who Use Drugs in Cambodia. Drawing on interviews with people who had been held in drug detention centers between 2006 and 2008, it detailed various abuses including whippings, beatings, cruel punishments, sexual violence, and forced labor.

This report is based on interviews with 33 individuals who had been held in the centers since then (between mid-2011 and mid-2013). Arbitrary detention without due process continues: as in the earlier report, none of the people whom Human Rights Watch interviewed saw a lawyer or judge, or were brought to court at any time after their apprehension or during their detention in the centers. Torture in these centers also continues: former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they were beaten, thrashed with rubber water hoses, punished by being forced to crawl along stony ground or stand in septic water pits, sexually abused, and forced to work.

Cambodia’s drug detention centers differ considerably from place to place. In some parts of the country, centers (such as Phnom Penh’s Orgkas Khnom) are high-walled, prison-like facilities on the urban outskirts. In other places, a center may be within the same compound as the police or gendarmerie station. One center is even run by the Cambodian military on the grounds of its provincial headquarters.

Regardless of the type of center, detainees spend their nights locked in barrack-like rooms and are forced in the morning to perform exhausting physical exercises and military-like drills in the center’s car park or parade ground. At some centers the rest of the day is spent idly passing time, while some detainees are made to work in the center’s garden or kitchen. Those who refuse to work are subject to beatings.

Human Rights Watch learned of several centers that force detainees to construct new buildings on the grounds of centers, or send them as part of work gangs to build houses and, at one center, to help construct a new hotel. Several former detainees in Phnom Penh said they were involved in construction work on the house of the then-center’s director.

Since 2010, the number of centers in Cambodia has decreased from 11 in 2010 to 8 in 2013. Although the reasons for their closure were not made public, Cambodia closed one center—the Choam Chao “Youth Rehabilitation Center” in Phnom Penh— soon after the publication of “Skin on the Cable” as well as two relatively small centers.

However, the overall number of people held in them has stayed constant, and the closure of the three centers has been offset by the opening of a new women’s unit in the Orgkas Khnom center. More ominously, the government has also announced plans to build a “national” drug treatment center in Preah Sihanouk province, although as of mid-2013 construction was not yet underway. It is unclear whether Vietnam, which Cambodia has approached to finance the planned center, will indeed do so.

According to government data, at least 1 in 10 center detainees are children under 18. Some may use drugs, while others are street children who do not use drugs but are confined in the centers following operations to “clean the streets.” Children face the same abuses as adults while confined: they are held in the same rooms as adults; forced to perform exhausting physical exercises and military-like drills; and are also subject to abuse, including cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and even torture.

Romchoang, for example, was an adolescent child when he was held in the military-run center in Koh Kong province for 18 months. He was locked in a room, chained to a bed for the first week of his detention, and later made to perform physical exercises each morning. Soldiers told him that sweating would help him recover from drugs. Soldiers beat him for falling asleep when he was meant to be sweeping the barracks.

Forcing people into “treatment” in drug detention centers violates many of their human rights, including protection from arbitrary arrest and detention, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The en masseprogram violates the right under international law to the highest attainable standard of health.

All medical treatment should be scientifically and medically appropriate, and of good quality. Human rights, as well as medical ethics, are grounded on the recognition of the right to autonomy and self-determination and the importance of informed consent. Compulsory drug dependency treatment should only be undertaken in exceptional crisis situations where accompanied by specific protections to ensure it is intended to return a person to a state of autonomy over their own treatment decisions; is of short duration and strictly time-bound; and is subject to regular review by an independent authority. Absent such conditions, there is no justification for compulsory treatment.

Locking up homeless people, sex workers, street children, or people with actual or perceived disabilities in drug detention centers is wholly without basis under international law.

These fundamental international legal violations mean that all individuals currently detained in Cambodia’s drug detention centers should be immediately and unconditionally released. To respect, protect, and fulfill the right to health of people with drug dependency, the government should expand access to voluntary, community-based drug treatment through the Ministry of Health with the involvement of competent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). This expansion of voluntary treatment services should not be a precondition for closing the centers.

Cambodian and international law also require authorities to investigate credible reports of torture and other ill-treatment, and appropriately discipline or prosecute those responsible. The Cambodian authorities took no such steps following the publication of “Skin on the Cable.” Once again, Human Rights Watch calls on Cambodian authorities to promptly investigate these reports of torture and ill-treatment, and prosecute the perpetrators.

Former detainees, like Pram, said they understood why the abysmal state of Cambodian drug treatment could continue in plain sight and without consequence. Detained in Orgkas Khnom center for three-and-a-half months in early 2013, he said simply: “Because we have no rights.”